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Even before Kyle Berg graduated from Branford High School (BHS) in 2005, he knew he wanted to join the military. On Nov. 9, Berg returned as one of more than 30 military members to share their stories with BHS students in recognition of Veteran's Day, during the 15th annual Veterans Appreciation Day at BHS.
"Because I wanted to join the service, it was a big thing for me," said Berg about being a student here during past Veteran Appreciation Day events. "I always had respect for veterans. I remember them coming in when I was here, so I hit them up on the computer to tell them I was coming home and I was wondering if they were still doing it, and they said come in today."
The 25 year-old was one day away from his official discharge after three years of active duty service with the Army Combat Engineers, including a year in Afghanistan. He took an early leave to be in Branford with his family ahead of last week's nor'easter and also to be a part of the Veterans Appreciation Day event, presented by BHS Student Council and its Horizons Program.
BHS Horizons teacher and Student Council Advisor Salvatore Zarra, an organizer of the annual event, said Veterans Appreciation Day started out due to an idea brought here by teacher Anthony "Bob" Bescher, to whom the event is now dedicated. What began as a breakfast with a few veterans and Horizons students grew into an all-day event that draws students from the entire school population. It allows them to experience "living history" by hearing about wartime and other military experiences from veterans and active-duty military members, said Zarra.
"What better way of spending Veterans Day is there than to honor them and spend the day with them?" asked Zarra. "They can learn so much more from these people."
Local veterans from all branches of the military serving in actions and wars including World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan attended this year's event. The 34 guests of honor took the BHS stage to be recognized during a school assembly in the morning, followed by small break-out sessions in classrooms, where students could sit in to hear from groups representative of each war or military action.
In small class gatherings, Korean vets described to today's iPhone-carrying kids the mid-20th century, sound-powered field telephones they relied on during combat missions. Connected to a portable "donut" containing a half-mile length of wire, the phones allowed one solider to move ahead and give advance notice of the field situation back the rear lines, where the other end of the wire was clipped to another soldier. The Korean War infantrymen also described how grateful they were to see Navy Marine pilots diving down from the sky to give air support, sometimes skimming so close to the ground, they could see the pilot giving a thumbs up.
Vietnam veterans described military actions and anti-military sentiment faced when returning to America after their service. New Haven resident and Army specialist Clarence Hook, a machine gunner who was sent into action at age 18, was wounded in the foot and sent back into the front lines. After he returned home, he didn't discuss his Vietnam service for a very long time, only recently embracing his status as a member of the Order of the Purple Heart.
Answering a student's question about how being in a war changes a person, Hook answered, "It does change you; when you see a human wave attack, in other words the Vietnamese would come at you with 200 people, and out of 200 people, maybe 30 of them got weapons, the other ones are just a human wave attack. And you're shooting at people, and they just keep coming at you and coming at you until it stops. That's enough to take you out [of] the box," he said. "Then you come back to the United States, and you weren't welcome."
One of the biggest rounds of applause for the veterans during the morning assembly came after World War II Air Force Sgt. William Brody addressed a student's question about personal sacrifices. Brody recounted how he once made an ethical decision for which he risked severe penalty, knowing it would save the life an airman he'd never meet.
Serving in England beginning 1943, Brody was working on test planes for 9th Tactical Air Force in 1944. At that time, he said, "there was a young pilot there, he looked like an ad for joining the Air Force. He took up a P47 and something happened, and he crashed it and was killed. What happened a few months later, we were working on a P47 Thunderbolt pursuit ship, and it needed a wing (but the replacement wing) looked to me like…it was all kind of messed up. So I called the head mechanic over to take a look at this wing… and he said 'I'd hate to be the pilot that has to try and fly the ship with this wing on it.'"
Protocol demanded an officer sign off on discarding the wing. Brody brought a discard request to an officer to sign.
"He said, 'You know I can't do that, that's a $25,000 wing,'"-about a quarter of a million in today's currency, Brody explained to the students.
"I said to him, 'Don't you think the pilot's life is worth $25,000?' He wouldn't sign it, he walked away…I couldn't put it back in stock. I got a truck and dragged it off into the woods somewhere, so nobody would have to pay just because of the price of a wing. I felt good about it. I could have been severely punished. I didn't know who was going to fly it, but I couldn't see somebody giving up his life just for money."
Many local military veterans participating in BHS Veterans Appreciation Day also visited students at North Branford High School for a Veteran's Day event on Monday, Nov. 12, after press time for this issue of The Sound.